David Francis: Sunday School, Discipleship, Small groups. . . what is the difference
Missional Sunday School classes are driven by two principles on which they refuse to compromise: open groups practicing open enrollment. 17 Much has been written about open groups versus closed groups. I’m actually an advocate for both. In fact, I believe that both discipleship groups and small groups function best as closed groups.
Discipleship groups are typically short-term with high accountability for preparation and participation around a course of study that involves deeper biblical content than the typical Sunday School class. In “D-groups,” disciples are challenged to grow in one or more of these areas: devoting themselves to being disciples, declaring their identity in Christ, developing spiritual disciplines, displaying Christlike character, defending the faith, discipling others—beginning with their own household, deploying their gifts in missional ministry, and/ or depending desperately on the Holy Spirit. D-groups work best as closed groups—that is, once the group starts, it is no longer open to additional participants.
Sunday School classes and D-groups have one thing in common with gatherings typically called “small groups.” They all tend to be more effective if they are actually small! But the term small groups usually implies more than just size. A common goal of small group ministry is developing deeper biblical community among a group of believers and some not-yet-believers who long to “do life together” in an environment of redemptive trust. Trust requires time. With the same people. That’s why small groups tend to be closed, whether they’re designed to be or not! North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, answers a frequently-asked question about small groups on one of its Web sites:
Q: What makes North Point’s groups model unique from others?
A: Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of our model is the closed group structure.
We believe relationships take time to form and anything that gets in the way of the group building relational capital with one another works against this goal. Groups stay closed for a predetermined time of twelve to twenty-four months. At that time they multiply to form Vibrant leadership 18 Transformational Class at least two new groups. (If a group loses members along the way, they are free to add new couples or individuals if everyone in the group agrees.)6
I think closed groups are great. In fact, if I was practicing Christian Education in a local church today, I would strive for a merger of a small group and D-group ministry. That’s exactly what Pastor Nelson Searcy and his team did at New York City’s multi-campus Journey Church, as described in the book Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups. Groups, which are closed once they start, start and stop three times each year. That’s not so different from the discipleship trimester approach popular in many churches except that Journey’s groups can meet anywhere on any day instead of on Sunday or Wednesday at the church campus.
Sunday School Classes Designed as Open Groups
What distinguishes Sunday School classes, including weekday off campus small groups that are functionally equivalent to Sunday School, is an open group strategy. Sunday School classes study the Bible, and therefore help people discover the eight "Ds” identified with D-groups (p. 17) on a foundational level. Sunday School classes also help people connect and experience fellowship, ministry, and a sense of community, though probably more on a social level than on the intimate level that is the goal of many small groups. So what makes it open? This short definition explains it best:
An Open Group Expects New People Every Week.
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